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License to Abuse? Time for Bureau of Prisons to Sever Ties With CCA

Guest blogger: Azadeh N. Shahshahani, National Security/Immigrants’ Rights Project Director, ACLU Foundation of Georgia.

Last week, the ACLU of Georgia submitted comments to the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to ask that the agency not renew its contract with Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) for operation of the McRae Correctional Facility.

McRae is located in Telfair County, Georgia. The prison is owned by CCA, which purchased it in 2000. McRae currently houses a population of low security, adult male, primarily non-citizen prisoners. The contract between CCA and the BOP is set to expire in November 2012.

In addition to McRae, CCA currently manages 4 facilities in Georgia, including the largest immigrant detention facility in the country, the Stewart Detention Center, in Lumpkin. In 2009, a 39-year-old Stewart detainee, Roberto Martinez Medina, died after a heart infection was allegedly allowed to go untreated.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident. Indeed, CCA, the largest owner and operator of privatized correctional and detention facilities in the U.S., has had a reputation for poor management, neglect, and turning a blind eye to abuses within its facilities for over 20 years. Since 2003, there have been at least 19 deaths in facilities operated by CCA, including 3 in Georgia.

This pattern of neglect and abuse is also seen at McRae, which has a record of violations of constitutional and BOP standards governing the medical treatment of prisoners. The lack of medical treatment for prisoners at McRae, as demonstrated by letters received from the prisoners by the ACLU of Georgia, is in violation of the 8th Amendment.

One prisoner at the facility suffered from epilepsy as a result of an accident in 2000. He arrived at the facility in 2011 and was taken off his epilepsy medication by the facility’s doctor even though he had extensive documentation of his condition. His complaints to the facility medical unit went unheard. A couple of months later, he had a seizure and had to be taken to the hospital. The doctors at the hospital insisted that he be given medication for his condition. Even though McRae guards now give him medication, they only provide him with half the amount of medication prescribed by the hospital doctor.

Another prisoner at McRae complained numerous times of pain in his abdomen. When he was finally taken before a doctor, he was diagnosed with a hernia and surgery was recommended. However, he was denied this medical treatment that could have abated his pain and suffering. He had to wait months and file numerous complaints before receiving treatment.

According to another prisoner, after a birthday celebration held at the facility, all the prisoners who consumed the meal suffered food poisoning. Because of the low medical capacity of the facility, most of the prisoners suffering from severe diarrhea, dehydration, and stomach cramps did not receive medical care for almost a week.

McRae also has a record of abusive disciplinary practices that violate BOP standards.

One prisoner was placed in the Special Housing Unit (SHU) on February 5, 2010, but did not receive the required notice until March 26, 2010. He was segregated for a total of 97 days, but the disciplinary hearing at which he had a chance to explain his actions only took place on April 12, days before his release into the general population. Documents prepared by McRae employees themselves, such as the incident report, confirm the dates for the various stages of the proceeding which deviate from the Program Statement requirements and reveal other inconsistencies in data entry that may variably suggest carelessness or falsification of records. Another prisoner’s experience of placement in the SHU is similarly replete with McRae employees’ failure to follow the applicable standards, including 5 months of SHU placement without the required notices to the prisoner, periodic reviews, or hearings.

Perhaps most disturbing is the pattern of McRae employees’ possibly retaliatory conduct that begins to emerge from these accounts. The prisoners subjected to discipline were all active in exercising their right to pursue legal activities as provided for in federal regulations and BOP policy. They had either previously filed grievance reports against the facility, provided legal assistance to other prisoners, or both. And they were all placed at the SHU for prolonged periods of time without the observance of procedural safeguards such as the periodic review process.

On July 13, 2011, three representatives from the BOP met with residents of McRae and surrounding communities for a public hearing on whether the agency should renew its contract with CCA for operation of McRae. Among those who addressed the panel of BOP representatives were employees of the correctional facility, including two guards and two medical staff. The image touted by McRae employees was that of a “humane, secure, and safe” facility. One CCA officer said that the facility is known for its hospitality and friendliness: “CCA at McRae is good to the inmates here, and the inmates know it.” One of the facility nurses said that inmates at McRae “know medical cares about them and will care for them.”

Voices of McRae prisoners were absent from the hearing. Had they been offered an opportunity, they would have presented a very different account.

The Supreme Court has stated: “Prison walls do not form a barrier separating prison prisoners from the protections of the Constitution.” Incarcerated people depend on the facility operators to provide for basic human needs, adequate living conditions, food, and medical treatment.

CCA has failed in its obligation to run the McRae Correctional Facility in a manner comporting with basic human dignity. Should the BOP choose to renew this contract, it will demonstrate the agency’s condoning of CCA’s failure to live up to its contractual and social obligations.

Photo courtesy of mitchellmcelroy.wordpress.com

Desperate need for oversight as sexual assault is carried out in immigration detention

Despite repeated promises of detention reform from John Morton at Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the immigration detention system is under fire once again. A guard at the T. Don Hutto detention facility in Taylor, Texas, has been accused of sexually assaulting female detainees on their way to being deported. As per complaints from the women who had been assaulted, several of them were groped while being patted down on the way to the airport, and one detainee reported being propositioned for sex.

ICE disclosed the information to advocate groups last week. Responding immediately, groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Texas and Grassroots Leadership expressed their outrage at the alleged sexual assault and called on the federal government to take immediate action to reform the broken detention system. The guard has been fired and Corrections Corporation of America, the private for-profit company that manages the facility under contract from ICE is on probation, until the outcome of the investigation is known. ICE has also ordered the company to effect changes such as not allowing female detainees to be left alone with male guards.

When Morton announced a detailed plan for reform of the immigration detention system last October, he attributed the majority of the detention problems, such as inhumane treatment and lack of medical care for detainees, to an over dependence on contractors like the Corrections Corporations of America and the infamous GEO Group, and the lack of federal oversight to monitor the running of the facilities. As part of the long-term plan for overhaul of the system, Morton had mentioned a smaller network of detention facilities that were monitored and managed by federal personnel and ensured appropriate medical care and transportation protocol. While those long-term goals are being implemented, there had been talk of establishing a representative from ICE at each facility to oversee activities.

This most recent incident of mistreatment of detainees drives home the urgent need for these reform plans to be implemented by ICE. Speaking about the sexual assault case, Bob Libal, Grassroots Leadership’s Texas Campaigns Coordinator said-

We are saddened and shocked by this report of abuse. While we were heartened that the administration took on reforming the U.S. detention system a year ago, this incident illustrates the inherent problems in an immigration detention system with no meaningful oversight. We hope that this latest news of misconduct in an immigrant detention facility will spur President Obama to action. His administration should should immediately take steps to scale back its growing and out-of-control detention system.

While such incidents do not receive the media attention they deserve, this is not the first case of sexual abuse in a detention center in Texas. Also at the T. Don Hutto facility, a different CCA guard was fired in 2007 when he was found having sex with a detainee in her cell. In 2008, a guard employed by the GEO Group at the South Texas Detention facility was charged with impregnating a detainee. As recently as April 2010 a guard at the Port Isabel Detention Facility in Los Fresnos, Texas was sentenced to three years in prison for sexually assaulting female detainees who were being kept in medical isolation. Lisa Graybill, Legal Director for the ACLU of Texas, denounced the inability of the facilities to prevent against such abuse saying-

The continued occurrence of sexual assault in immigration detention facilities demonstrates the need for Immigration and Customs Enforcement to move more aggressively in implementing reforms like improving detention standards, strengthening federal oversight of private providers like GEO and CCA, or better yet, eliminating the use of contract providers altogether.

Advocates have repeatedly stressed the various problems associated with immigration detention being managed by groups like private companies like GEO and CCA. In an article posted on our blog in December, ACLU’s Tracey Hayes reported that the GEO Group has witnessed a long and steady rise in its profits while continuing to cut costs on detainee care. According to an article in the Boston Review-

Over the past eight years, the prison giants CCA ($1.6 billion in annual revenue) and GEO Group ($1.1 billion) have racked up record profits, with jumps in revenue and profits roughly paralleling the rising numbers of detained immigrants…Inmates …are technically in the custody of the federal government, but they are in fact in the custody of corporations with little or no federal supervision. So labyrinthine are the contracting and financing arrangements that there are no clear pathways to determine responsibility and accountability. Yet every contract provides an obvious and unimpeded flow of money to the private industry and consultants.

In a disturbing side note that underscores the implications of private prison companies being in charge of immigration detention and deportation, the Phoenix News Times connected the Corrections Corporation of America to Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer’s campaign. The article says that months before signing SB1070, Gov. Brewer accepted hundreds of dollars in “seed money” from CCA executives and others “with a possible stake in Arizona’s “papers please” legislation becoming law.” While the donations did not go beyond the limits of how much “seed money” can be received for a campaign, it is difficult to ignore the ethical implications of a company that stands to gain from the passage of the law, funding the campaign.The ugly truth of the matter is that the more people that get questions and detained as a result of Arizona’s racist and extreme new law, the more the private detention facilities stand to profit.

It is imperative that the federal Government understands how urgent the need for reform is. And while ICE takes its time to implement the long-term goals for an overhaul of the detention system, more and more people are suffering from inhumane conditions, sexual abuse and even facing death.

Photo courtesy of texasobserver.org

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Government abdicating responsibility on deaths in detention

No one doubts the immigration system is broken. But with the dilly dallying that seems to have enveloped any immigration reform legislation, families continue to be broken up and lives continue to be lost in the vast immigration detention and deportation network.

At a cost of $1.7 billion a year, the immigration detention system is a vast network of federally run detention centers and about 300 state and county jails that detain 32,000 detainees every night or 370,000 in the year. Many of these facilities are privately run. The New York Times ran a shocking expose of desperate attempts by immigration officials to conceal the death and mistreatment of immigrants. But the real icing on the cake came yesterday.

When the Obama administration vowed to overhaul immigration detention last year, its promise of more humane treatment and accountability was spurred in part by the harrowing treatment of two detainees who died in the Bush years….But on Wednesday, the administration argued in federal court that the government had no liability for neglect or abuse by private contractors running the Donald W. Wyatt Detention Facility in Central Falls, R.I.

It’s a shocking way to cast off blame and responsibility. Both Hiu Lui Ng (34) and and Francisco Castaneda (36) were treated awfully in detention, denied treatment for cancer even when in agonizing pain. Advocates have consistently asked for legally binding standards for detention facilities as well as community based alternatives to detention. Many promises have been put forth to reform the system but ground realities seem to tell a different story. And  now the administration is trying to abdicate its responsibility to those whom it detains.

Detention reform remains an essential part of any larger immigration reform. With increasing pressure from the community, the LA Times reported,

Despite steep odds, the White House has discussed prospects for reviving a major overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws, a commitment that President Obama has postponed once already. Obama took up the issue privately with his staff Monday in a bid to advance a bill through Congress before lawmakers become too distracted by approaching midterm elections.

Public pressure is strong for reform. Editorials in the the Washington Post and the New York Times have angrily accused President Obama and Congress of not fulfilling their responsibilities. It seems an ever growing cycle – with no one wanting to take blame and responsibility, just like the “it’s not my problem” attitude towards detention. But the outcome of this is a loss of lives, broken communities and ever growing despair with unkept promises.